Indian broadcasters will be looking nervously at the profit and loss accounts against those huge rights fees of 2008 as a busy year of sport unfolds in 2009, says Taj TV senior VP Peter Hutton.
2008 brought a joyful revolution for Indian sport. Olympic gold followed a 20-20 whirlwind that swept remarkable and unexpected riches into Indian cricket.
Billions of dollars have flown into cricket in India, while tv revenues from the sub-continent have spiralled in other sports as well. A payment of over $40 million for the 2010 soccer world cup, compared to 3 million for the 2002 event shows how fast the expectations of the market has changed, even though the percentage of sports viewing within Indian television (just 3.2 percent) remains unchanged.
2009 promises to be more about consolidation in challenging economic times. Already, thanks to the credit crunch, there are signs of ground sponsors backing away from cricket worldwide. Recent sponsorship tenders in Sri Lanka and Pakistan have found no bidders. Long term backers such as Vodafone have moved away in England and there is a question mark over further Stanford hand-outs in the West Indies.
Now the Indian broadcasters will be looking nervously at the profit and loss accounts against those huge rights fees of 2008 as a busy year of sport unfolds. India travel to New Zealand, followed by the IPL, ensuring that Sony, who have the rights to both, will be first in the firing line as their sales team try to reach the massive targets that lie behind the fees paid to the BCCI.
Ten Sports see India in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and West Indies in the Summer, while ESPN Star have the first real challenge of their $2 billion investments with the 20-20 world championships - the Champions League and the Champions Trophy. Finally, Neo is due to have Indian home series against Australia and Sri Lanka at the end of the year.
The economic pressures would argue for rights fees to fall in the coming year, but remarkably 2009 is a year that sees none of the major cricket rights due to come up for sale. With long term deals now in place for all 10 full member cricket boards, the ICC and the IPL, cricket content is clearly divided up between the broadcasters. The next board due up for bidding should be India in 2010.
The new 20-20 leagues are the exception, with the planned English EPL and the Southern Hemisphere leagues now formulating their international sales strategy and expecting large numbers from the Indian market.
Away from cricket, the English Premier League soccer deal will end with ESPN/Star in May 2010 and the bidding for these rights for the next three seasons should be concluded in 2009.
There will certainly be progress in the technology of cricket broadcasting. High Definition production of cricket is now established in England, and the Champions League in India will be at similar standards, though Indian viewers will not see the benefits until DTH or cable platforms upgrade their technology to support HD broadcast in the country.
Watch out too for developments in match coverage. The "blimp camera" favoured by Sky in the UK will surely make its debut in India shortly and expect more use of Hawkeye or their rivals from Virtual Replay as the ICC encourage umpires to use increased technology. Now the argument will be over who foots the bill, broadcaster or cricket board, as the ICC pushes the need for broadcasters to use such systems as part of their basic toolkit for cricket coverage.
There should also, finally, be some progress for the cricket spectator. Notably the Dubai Sports city stadium will open in 2009 and within walking distance of the ICC's new headquarters, the steep sided stadium will provide a new high in terms of the spectator experience at cricket matches in this part of the world.
Great artists need great stages and enthralled crowds. For test cricket in India to be played out to empty grounds is a wasted opportunity that will hopefully be taken up by the BCCI in time for the Sri Lankan tour at the end of the year. Revenues from gate receipts in the sub-continent may not attract the commercial headlines in the way that rights and franchise fees can, but packed, emotional stadia are an important part of the Indian cricketing experience and a vital part of its appeal. Better, friendlier and not necessarily bigger, grounds are part of the solution. Look out for events at both Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2009, and see the quality of the facilities for spectators.
The succesful local marketing campaigns of the IPL franchises to attract crowds into their stadia were crucial to the wave of momentum that brought such remarkable television viewing figures in India in 2008. With fewer international players available for the full IPL campaign in 2009 (Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, England and West Indies all have events that clash or overlap with the IPL) and as the IPL franchises begin to focus on long term financial viability, the loyalty of those fans and the impressively young demographic needs to be retained.
It is always difficult to make a critical comment on the IPL given its remarkable success in developing domestic sporting interest in India, but the expensive franchises and remarkable rights fees achieved by Lalit Modi need to be supported by profits for broadcasters and franchises in order for the momentum to be continued. 2009's difficult economic times may be a challenge, but the IPL has already proved that it can re-write usual industry rules.
One area where I would hope for progress would be in the understanding of news access to sports pictures within India. There needs to be a legal framework which defines what news broadcasters can take from sports broadcasters to use in sports news bulletins. Until there is a defined set of regulations, the news broadcasters will obviously be forced by the competition between them to take more and more sports coverage on shorter and shorter delays and without permission and payment.
The current situation, particularly in the use of archive material, leads to the bizarre situation where a sports broadcaster signs an agreement for a federation to use material for a period of time and is punished by a federation for use of that archive beyond the period. But a news broadcaster, who has never paid the federation, keeps material recorded without permission or payment and uses those pictures whenever it requires. This would seem to be a blatant disregard of copyright, but is at the heart of the Indian news channel business.
In International sport, the highlights for the Indian viewer promise to be the battles between Australia and South Africa for test cricket superiority and the traditional rivalry of the Ashes. Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France will pull at the heartstrings, while the biggest clubs in Europe have made their way through to the final stages of the Champions League.
One of the reasons that loyalties for other sports don't translate into increasing audiences is surely the frustration of the viewer faced with those cable operators who, because of a lack of room in their systems, rotate sports channels up and down their system based on who is showing live cricket. This surely frustrates regular viewing habits for the likes of golf, tennis and international football, which can struggle to be seen in some cable homes.
The committed sports viewer is therefore increasingly being driven towards DTH platforms or information from the internet. One of the factors in Ten Sports moving the WWE broadcasts to the same week as the programmes were shown in America was the fact that the WWE website was receiving so many hits in India that viewers were already aware of results before the programmes were seen in the sub-continent.
Broadband and mobile broadcasts of sport will slowly begin to change the market, and in particular the instant highlights of the BCCI's site provides a useful support to conventional broadcast for those who have a broadband connection. The usual two-hour television daily highlights of cricket demanded by the advertising market don't really fulfil the needs of the viewer for smaller packages of information that are more readily available, and there are clear opportunities for the growth of small clip rights of broadband and mobile. I also see potential for the DTH platforms to move towards pay per view sport on events such as boxing, which is rarely seen on advertiser funded channels.
I have a few hopes for change in 2009, though I am far from convinced that change will happen.
As the Indian broadcast market moves into an increased reliance from subscription rather than advertising income, I would like to see channels showing more of the sport rather than inserting conventional break formats that intrude into the sport. There is little point in inserting 30 second promos into every over break in non India cricket. I'd like to hear the commentators have room to discuss, and for viewers at home to be closer to the live cricket watching experience. I like seeing the teams run onto the pitch and prepare for kick off in football rather than go for a break right up to the referees whistle.
Sports that don't suit natural break formats, such as motorsport, golf or cycling, should be interrupted less. To leave live sport and join a commercial break always feels wrong to me, and while I fully understand the economic necessity of doing so, I hope the trend will now move more to supporting the needs of the subscriber.
I would like to see more channels available to the Indian viewer so that those minorities who have their own sporting passions are not submerged by the increasing broadcast of year round cricket. The growth in the number of channels over the past six years since Ten Sports launched in India has been impressive, but there is a huge volume of international sports product that would command some audience but is not readily available in the country.
Hopefully 2009 will see more live sport available in India, and broadcasters providing the services that their audiences would want to watch. 2010 will be the year of the commonwealth games, the hockey World Cup and more in India. Hopefully television can help prepare viewers for those events, and help to build crowds at the events that show that India is an ideal location to host major sporting events.
As ever, the sporting year 2009 will provide a roller coaster of emotion. Sport commands such loyalty that it can drive the viewers choice of platform and operator, and the sports broadcast industry is key to the growth of pay television in India. Hopefully, the regulators can help the sports broadcasters build businesses that provide viewers the quality they deserve and that we, in the sports television business, can be imaginative and creative in ways that help sport to benefit in the country.